Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Here’s a fascinating collection of British wartime short films – another treat from the British Film Institute.

As CineOutsider reports, “continuing the BFI’s work of unlocking film heritage in Britain, this fascinating DVD collection brings together a selection of public information films, propaganda shorts and adverts from the Second World War, drawn from the BFI National Archive, and contains films that give essential advice to a nation living in an age of austerity.

Originally shown in cinemas to British audiences during the Second World War, these films served to boost morale, covering topics which include rationing, staying healthy, how to grow vegetables, cooking tips and salvaging and recycling. These films were crucial to the British war effort and the campaign messaging has been much reproduced in modern advertising to this day.

Highlights of the collection include Tea Making Tips (1941), with ‘the six golden tips’ for making the perfect cuppa; director/artist/animator Len Lye’s When the Pie Was Opened (1941); Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) starring comedian Claude Hulbert playing a Home Guard volunteer; Wisdom of the Wild (1940), a wartime twist on the long-running Secrets of Life natural history series; the Wicked Witch (1943), an advert for Rinso and A-Tish-oo! (1941), an instructional film on how to make a face-mask.”

There’s also a collection of Food Flash mini-shorts, each about 15 seconds long, which cover everything from ‘victory meals’ to the necessity of reporting rat infestations to the local council to prevent them from raiding food supplies. All the films are very brief, and together they give a fascinating look at a time and place long vanished from authentic recall for most people.

There’s nothing like living history – which this DVD supplies – to bring the past back to life before our eyes. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the BFI, and it’s a pip! You won’t see these films anywhere else – pick up a copy, and support the BFI, and international film history.

A fascinating collection – absolutely worthwhile, and beautifully restored.

Jannik Splidsboel’s “Misfits” (2015)

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

This brilliant documentary really cuts to the heart of LGBT society in America today.

Misfits is a short, sharply observed 73 minute documentary about three American teenagers from conservative Tulsa, Oklahoma struggling with isolation and instability in a heartfelt story that portrays family bonds, poverty, survival, love and the consequences of coming out as a young LGBT in the Bible Belt. While the general public opinion towards gays within America is slowly changing, this coming-of-age story closely follows the three gay teen protagonists as they struggle to achieve a sense of self within families in a community that still widely condemns homosexuality.

Misfits was directed by Danish filmmaker Jannik Splidsboel, who earned a nomination at The Berlinale in 2009 for his documentary How Are You?, and was shot over a two year period on location. It’s a stunning, deeply moving film. Without sentimentalizing the material, and with a calm, almost meditational air, Misfits takes the viewer into a world which is once hard and yet beautiful, in which love struggles to find a voice, yet ultimately wins, despite seemingly overwhelming odds. It’s one of the finest films of 2015.

As critic Guy Lodge noted in a deeply perceptive review of the film in Variety, “if the global ‘It Gets Better’ campaign has lent a certain familiarity to narratives of gay teenage oppression and self-realization, that’s hardly something to be held against Misfits: Rather, Jannik Splidsboel’s delicate documentary works as a progress report on a movement that, in a just world, would be far older news by now. Sensitively following three members of an LGBT youth support group . . . as they find their respective paths in a society largely hostile to their alternative identities, Splidsboel’s film touches lightly on community politics, but is most illuminating and uplifting in its portrayal of hard-won domestic battles.

This is essential viewing – gorgeous, deeply felt, a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Rick Prelinger’s new film is a fascinating look into the history of Los Angeles.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in The Los Angeles Times on November 15, 2015, “A camera pans the streets of downtown Los Angeles from the window of a moving car, cruising past Mickie’s Café, John’s Dog House, an Orange Julius, the Angel’s Flight Café and the Burbank Burlesque, boasting a chorus line of ‘ California Beauties.’

If these places don’t sound familiar it’s because they’re long gone — shuttered, reborn as restaurants or discount clothing shops or torn down to make way for Bunker Hill’s towering Financial District.

But in a beguiling new film by Rick Prelinger, the Bay Area filmmaker known for working with bits of found film, they have come back to life. Lost Landscapes of Los Angeles splices together home movies and studio outtakes, primarily stock driving footage that serves as background in scenes where characters ride in cars or buses.

The film, whose footage dates from the 1920s to the 1960s, is more about mood than in telling a literal story — a nonlinear, highly poetic gathering of moving images that examine our city as it no longer exists.

It also doesn’t contain a soundtrack — which means the audience is free to chat or name a location they might be familiar with as the film screens. Says Prelinger: ‘I really like the idea of people talking and making the soundtrack and coming to an understanding together.’

The film is one in a series of movies that Prelinger has made in this way — including 10 on San Francisco and five on Detroit. He also made the 2013 film No More Road Trips, which tells the story of a road trip — from one side of the country to the other — by employing an array of amateur footage.”

A really interesting project – check it out if you can.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Andy Warhol Eats A Hamburger

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

Andy Warhol eats a hamburger. It almost looks like an Edward Hopper painting.

This is actually a segment from Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s 1982 film 66 Scenes from America, which the distributor, Doc Alliance films, describes as “reminiscent of a pile of postcards from a journey, which indeed is what the film is. It consists of a series of lengthy shots of a tableau nature, each appearing to be a more or less random cross section of American reality, but which in total invoke a highly emblematic picture of the USA. With the one travelling shot (through a car windscreen) and one pan (across a landscape) the tableau principle is only breached on two occasions; exceptions that prove the rule, so to speak.

The images or postcards may be viewed as a number of interlaced chains of motifs, varying from ultra close up to super wide, include pictures of landscapes, highways and advertising hoardings, buildings seen from without, mostly with a fluttering Stars and Stripes somewhere in the shot, objects such as coins on a counter, refrigerator with a number of typical food products, a plate of food at a diner or a bottle of Wild Turkey, and finally, people who introduce themselves (and sometimes the content of their lives in rough-hewn form) facing the camera: for example, the New York cabbie or the celebrities Kim Larsen and Andy Warhol.

The film actually consists of 75 shots but in some cases several shots combine in one scene, thus ending on sixty six. Each scene is delimited by the narrator; at the end of each shot he pins down the picture content, often by a simple indication of time or place, but in some cases more playfully, often shifting our perception in a surprising fashion. Similarly the sound close-ups in some scenes are intended to alter the viewer’s immediate interpretation of the picture content, while the mood-creating or interpretive use of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes (No. 5) provides the final component of the film.” Simple, meditative cinema.

Click here, or on the image above, to view. Now, wasn’t that delicious?

The AP Video Archive is Now on YouTube

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

The Associated Press puts up 17,000 hours of news film and videotape on YouTube – click here to see!

As Todd Spangler reported in Variety on July 22, 2015, “The Associated Press is uploading more than 550,000 video clips to YouTube — covering news events dating back to 1895 — which the news org said will be the largest collection of archival news content on the Google-owned platform to date.

AP, together with newsreel archive provider British Movietone, will deliver more than 1 million minutes of digitized film footage to YouTube. The goal: to provide high-profile, searchable repositories that let documentary filmmakers, historians and others find news footage, and to promote licensing deals for rights to use the video.

The archival footage includes major world events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Celeb footage includes Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modeling fashions of the 1960s, as well as segments on Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Brigitte Bardot and Elvis Presley.

The content is available on two YouTube channels: AP Archive and British Movietone, whose collection spans from 1895 to 1986. Last year, U.K. newsreel archive company British Pathé uploaded its entire 100-year library of 85,000 historic films in HD to YouTube, comprising some 3,500 hours of footage.

Much of the material AP is putting on YouTube is already searchable and available to preview on aparchive.com. Alwyn Lindsey, AP’s director of international archive, said putting the content on the world’s biggest Internet-video platform will increase the exposure of the collection. ‘We found documentary filmmakers tend to start their searches for footage on YouTube, and this gives them a route back to AP,’ Lindsey said.

‘The AP Archive footage, combined with the British Movietone collection, creates an incredible visual journey of the people and events that have shaped our history,’ Lindsey said. ‘At AP we are always astonished at the sheer breadth of footage that we have access to, and the upload to YouTube means that, for the first time, the public can enjoy some of the oldest and most remarkable moments in history.’”

An amazing event, which could only happen in the digital era!

Welcome To This House: A Film About Elizabeth Bishop by Barbara Hammer

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Barbara Hammer, one of my favorite filmmakers, has a new film out.

Barbara Hammer has been making brilliant and uncompromising independent films since the 1960s, and is still going strong, as evidenced by her recent retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, as well as other venues, but now comes the news that Hammer has released a new feature film on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, which I have yet to see, but which I look forward to with great anticipation.

Her work is seemingly everywhere: in the past few years, Hammer was honored with a month long retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City from September 11-October 13, 2010, and in February 2012 she had a month long retrospective at The Tate Modern in London, followed by retrospectives in Paris at Jeu de Paume in June 2012 and the Toronto International Film Festival in October 2013.

As the press materials for the film by Monica Nolan note, “poet Elizabeth Bishop has gained notoriety as much for her tempestuous romance with Lota de Macedo Soares as for her poetry. While that affair inspired a book and a movie (Reaching for the Moon), this new documentary broadens the focus and puts the Lota affair in context. Frameline24 Award recipient Barbara Hammer (whose previous films at Frameline are too numerous to list!) creates a layered portrait of the person behind the poet, from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her death in 1979.

Bishop described herself as ‘timorously kicking around the coastlines of the world,’ and the film is loosely organized around her stays in Nova Scotia, Key West, Brazil, and Cambridge—the homes she made for herself and the lovers she took. Never ‘out’ as a lesbian—the concept would have been foreign to the writer who graduated from Vassar in the thirties—Bishop nonetheless actively pursued women, from her first summer-camp crush to the May-December romance that was her last affair.

Hammer examines Bishop from all angles, interviewing everyone from literary luminaries like Marie-Claire Blais and Edmund White to Lota’s aged former maid. Hammer pulls the viewer into Bishop’s world, blending present day footage of each location with archival photos, and recreating moments in the writer’s life. Throughout the film we hear Bishop’s own words, read by Kathleen Chalfant, revealing yet another facet of a complicated and passionate woman.”

Barbara Hammer (right) with Florrie Burke. Photo: Joyce Culver.

This sounds like a typically brilliant film from Hammer, who has made over 80 moving image works in a career that spans 40 years, and is considered a pioneer of queer cinema. In the meantime, you should check out Barbara Hammer’s latest doings as chronicled on her website by clicking here, or on the image above – with news of her latest doings in the world of cinema, someone who is courageously moving forward in an era in which the arts are often pushed aside by the incessant pursuit of comic book films and other non-demanding escapist entertainment. Want some real nutrition for a change? Then check out Barbara Hammer’s work, and see what you’ve been missing.

Barbara Hammer – one of the most important independent filmmakers working in cinema today.

Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

Son of Frankenstein Makeup Tests – In Color (1939)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Ever wonder what the Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff, looked like in color?

In this incredibly rare, one minute piece of 16mm home movie footage shot in Kodachrome color on the set of Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), you can get a good idea of just how skillful Jack Pierce’s makeup was. In the opening section, the viewer is treated to a wide shot of Boris Karloff lumbering around the set in the heavy makeup, while a stagehand works behind the scenes, seen through the window, to prepare for the next take. Then there’s a closeup, capped by Karloff playfully sticking his tongue out for the camera, clearly taking the whole thing with a huge grain of salt.

In the film’s final moments, Karloff ostensibly sneaks up on Pierce and pretends to strangle him, but obviously, it’s all in fun. Son of Frankenstein is notable as the last time Karloff played the monster, although he continued to make horror movies, of course, for the rest of his career, and it’s also an odd film in that the sets were built and ready before the script was completed. The result is an eye-popping but somewhat disjointed film, yet still an honorable effort, and one of the last great classics from the Golden Age of Universal horror. And now you can see this rare piece of cinema history – a real find.

Thanks to the fan who posted this, with disabled comments, which is great – no comments needed!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos